On the train to our concourse, I sit down, mindful that I am to relinquish my seat for the elderly or impaired. I pull the stroller close to me, and whisper to James. But I’m not concentrating on our conversation; I’m staring at the motley collection of human beings crowding aboard, watching their interactions with each other. A kind look here; a rude scowl there. Fascinating.
We get off, and our guide takes us to the special elevator. We wait and wait, but it’s evidently not working. He takes us down the corridor to another one, but tells us “It’s slow.” Luckily, we arrive there seconds before a long line of wheelchairs forms behind us. “It’s slow,” our Ethiopian gentleman reiterates to the other wheelchair attendants. We wait and wait some more. Finally, the door opens. A beautiful able-bodied young woman gets off, giving us a little shrug as she exits. “Lazy much?” Grace inquires under her breath. The other wheelchair-bound passengers sigh as our entourage fills the tiny space. They’ll have to wait some more.
Emerging onto Concourse D, our long-suffering helper sighs himself as he tells us, “It’s the last one.” I find myself apologizing to him, spewing stupid Southern inanities like, “I’m so sorry. I bet you didn’t know what you were getting into when they called you to help us.” He looks at me with the patience of Job and starts pushing to the last gate.
By this point, we’re starting to panic a bit. Outdoor Counter Man told us at the beginning of this saga that we didn’t have seat assignments. We were advised to get to the counter at the gate ASAP and explain our situation. And hope for the best in terms of sitting together. Actually, he told us that there were no seats together. So I start sprinting ahead of everyone.
Fortunately…providentially… generously… (or perhaps because of the adequately greased palm) O.C.M. has evidently called ahead and informed the airline representatives of our situation. They inform us that three of us may sit together. The fourth is right across the aisle. Gratefully, I drop another large bill on our guide and we God Bless him as he leaves.
The knot in my stomach begins to unfurl for a second until I look around and discover that there are no seats left in the waiting area. We have eight carry-on items (the allowed limit for four passengers), a wheelchair, 4-footed cane, and stroller. But there is nowhere to go with it all.
So we stay in front of the counter, virtually blocking the way for any other passengers. There are seats perpendicular to it, but not enough for our group. I look around. Then I walk around, beseeching people with my eyes.
But this is a tough and hardened group heading to LA. There are no men there like my husband, who would immediately jump up out of his seat to help a woman in obvious need. Instead, there are just blank stares and averted eyes. Virtually everyone in the area talks very loudly about personal matters on their cell phone. Some very personal matters. (Does this young woman not realize that I’m listening to her talk about her sex life? Does she not care???)
There are two seats available on the perpendicular row. I try to jam the wheelchair and stroller in as far as they’ll go in front of them. Grace and I stack the carry-on in the seats. Two irritable and obese people occupy the seats to our immediate left. One, the woman, speaks no English. They stare at us without speaking…without a twinkle of acknowledgement that there’s an adorable little boy with us… as they morosely, but concentratedly, consume a bag of Burger King Whoppers and fries. I almost want to wave my hand in front of the woman’s face to make sure she’s really there. That someone’s in there.
Leave it to my Pollyanna. As the steam pours out of my ears, I hear Katherine addressing the couple. “Excuse me. Are we in your way? I’m sorry if we are. I’ve had a brain injury, so traveling is difficult. I hope we’re not crowding you.”
I excuse myself to the Ladies Room.
But then I panic that we’ll be called to board. “Special Needs and Young Children” are boarded first. As I wait in the Burger King line to order the fries for which my grandson has been avidly pleading since seeing them consumed with such vigor by our friendly neighbors, I text Katherine. She responds, “We’re boarding now.”
Mimi don’t run.
But Mimi ran.
Like I was in Chariots of Fire. Big leaps. In a skirt.
Everyone is waiting for us to board first. Unfortunately, Katherine has requested that her sister go find her a Starbucks. The airline reps say, “Are we ready now?” “Yes, of course,” I say, as I start kicking the eight bags down the 100+ degree walkway to the plane, while pushing James’ stroller with one hand and texting Grace frantic, mean messages with the other. The other passengers crowd around, stepping on my heels, one actually almost tripping me.
A woman behind the desk comes out and offers to push James. Grace comes running down the Concourse, Starbucks splashing. We get to the bottom of the gangplank. Wobbly wildly, Katherine tries to board the plane by herself, as I attempt to get the wheelchair and stroller folded up. The roll-aboards topple over, obstructing the path of the other passengers who will not wait for us to board. (As if the plane will take off earlier if they push and step over us.)
Finally, we’re seated: Katherine in the window seat, James in the middle, me on the aisle. But we discover that Grace isn’t really directly across from us: she’s in the middle seat across the aisle.
I tell my daughters I will handle it. NO ONE in our family likes to be assertive. But by this point, my adrenalin is so high that I have no doubt that I will be up to the task.
We are in the bulkhead of Economy Class. Countless random types pass us by… each one a possibility. I try to guess which one might be my potential adversary. Finally, a patrician-looking octogenarian comes up and looks at Grace. “You’re in my seat,” she announces regally.
But I am ready.
I stand up and get right in her face.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but I must ask you a huge favor. I am traveling with my handicapped daughter and her two-year-old son, and I need for my other daughter to be next to me to help. Would you mind changing seats with her?”
I wait expectantly for a gracious, “Yes, of course,” which my mother, who is also an octogenarian, would give under even vaguely similar circumstances, NO MATTER WHAT. Totally inconceivable that our octogenarian would respond in any other possible way.
“No,” this one answers, “I’m 80 years old and I have a bad back, and I will not sit in the middle seat.”
Okay. Breathe deeply. Think of something peaceful and beautiful. This is only a millisecond of Eternity. Use the “One Free Drink” voucher that your husband gave you.
Except they’re not.
That 80’s book was a lie.
The truth is: I’m not okay, you’re not okay.
We are really not okay. None of us.
No, not one is righteous. Not even one. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
I sit back down in my seat, stunned by the violence of the day. I look at the faces passing by: the anger, the stress, the exhaustion, the feckless hope, the innocence.
I look at my first-born child, happily texting away as we await the final preparations for take-off, her son between us.
And I realize something.
Everyone on that plane is handicapped.
We might not all have a special blue parking permit, a wheelchair, or a sign on our heads, but we are handicapped, disabled, deformed, nevertheless…
By fear… or anger… or selfishness… or self-hatred…
despair… loneliness… perfectionism… prejudice… emptiness… pride… perversion… addiction…
or a lack of love.
And we are all deserving of compassion and aid.
I go back to an old favorite quote of G.K. Chesterton: “We are all in the same boat in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.”
The rest of the story: The octogenarian ended up being nice, and got up as many times as necessary so that Grace could help with James when I took Katherine to the ladies’ room, etc.
Getting off the plane was even worse than getting on, but a Good Samaritan finally intervened and helped us.
I always wondered about this before…when to offer to help. I think many of us are wary of offending those who must value their independence and are accustomed to dealing with the challenges of their situation. My opinion after this experience and others like it: When in doubt, do.